10 must-watch games for Penn State playoff hopes

Ok, so we couldn’t get it done against Ohio State…. again. Frustrating. Disappointing. All the usual emotions. Sure, we could all choose to wallow in our own crapulence, but Coach Franklin isn’t moping around and neither am I. After all, I’m a pilsner glass half-full type of guy. Last Saturday, I saw a rapidly-maturing young team led by an unflappable field general, a group I believe to be fully capable of scaling great heights this season. The Lions may be down, but they’re not out of the playoff hunt.

The only way Penn State can get back in the game is to keep winning.

It’s a moot point if the Nittany Lions don’t run the table from here, which is why they needn’t worry about any of the Big Ten teams ranked below them. Dates with Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin loom, and while PSU must vanquish them all, the Spartans and Wolverines could hand them big assists further down the line by beating Ohio State. Thanks to their independent status, Notre Dame can’t afford to drop a game in pursuit of the playoffs. Nittany Nation should be rooting hard for an ND loss, some chaos in the Big XII (and maybe the ACC), and enough intra-conference brutality within the SEC to restrict the perennial media darlings to a single entrant in the final four.

Starting with a timely bye week affording Penn State fans a chance to take in some other games from around the country, here are the key non-conference teams and matchups to watch if PSU is to climb back into the race to finish runner-up to Alabama.

 

October 6 – Texas at Oklahoma: Our watch party begins with this weekend and College GameDay’s next stop following the White Out in Happy Valley (sure to be a letdown, no matter how much fried food there is). We’re all Burnt Orange, all the time, on this one. No matter how they’ve improved since, Texas is unlikely to jump an 11-1 Penn State having lost to a Maryland team the Lions would have defeated. Hook ‘em, Horns!

October 6 – Notre Dame at Virginia Tech: It would be pretty much the most Virginia Tech thing ever to lose at home to Old Dominion, then turn around and beat a red-hot Fighting Irish team ranked in the Top 10. Likewise, it would pretty “Brian Kelly” of Brian Kelly to seemingly turn the corner with a bold, mid-season quarterback change and then collapse against a team that, again, lost at home to Old Dominion. That said, I don’t think this happens. Lloyd Christmas said it best though.

October 13 – Georgia at LSU: A bad visit to Death Valley for Georgia would set up a rough ride for the ‘Dogs, set to host Florida, travel to surprising Kentucky, and then face Auburn at home in consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, Louisiana State will face the Saban juggernaut a few weeks after this home date with UGA. Your rooting interest here comes down to who you believe in least: LSU, Georgia, or Auburn (or Kentucky, I guess). One way or another, you’re rooting for all non-Alabama SEC contenders to eat at least one loss (preferably two) entering conference title weekend, ideally in convincing/blowout fashion.

October 27 – Clemson at Florida State: I am probably taking a flier on this one. At first (and second and third) glance, Clemson’s remaining schedule looks like a Charmin-soft glide path to the playoffs. But Dabo’s team has a few more chinks in its armor this year, and the suddenly uncertain quarterback situation could yield even greater instability. For as disastrous as things have been in Tallahassee so far this season, the ‘Noles are still a team stocked with several top recruiting classes’ worth of talent. Willie Taggart is a good coach, and if he is settling in by late Autumn, this game could be a Tiger trap. A Clemson loss would badly damage the ACC’s standing in the playoff conversation, which could be a major development for the Big Ten/Penn State.

November 3 – Alabama at LSU: If you’re feeling saucy, you’ll pull for the Bayou Bengals in this one, betting that either the other Tigers, from Auburn, or a title game opponent, presumably Georgia, can deal the Tide a second loss and that a two-loss Alabama would (probably) miss the playoff in a program first. A reasonable person, however, will root for the Tide to win the first of several elimination games for the SEC teams ranked ahead of Penn State.

November 3 – Stanford at Washington: A second loss by the Huskies somewhere along the way would be another big boost to the Lions’ argument, regardless of how OSU fares in its remaining games. While Chris Peterson’s crew faces a number of potentially tricky tests (playing Oregon in Eugene, home against upstart Colorado, and an Apple Cup road trip to face Wazzu), this one is probably the play-in for the PAC-12 championship game. In any case, a one-loss PAC-12 champ is not ideal, but UW probably has the stronger resume in that case. Washington is the only ranked team left on Stanford’s slate, so we’re pinning a lot on Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin to boost our quality wins.

November 10 – Auburn at Georgia: Chaos, chaos, chaos. Root for chaos. Root for the SEC’s top brands to douse each other with homemade barbeque sauce and chow down. As noted above, the Bulldogs have the tougher road to reach this one, although the Tigers do have Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M the previous week. Pick the team with the lower ranking/worse record, and root for them.

November 17 – Miami at Virginia Tech: A sneaky matchup that could set Miami up to play spoiler in the conference title game and force its way back into playoff discussions. As we project further out, rooting interests are more difficult to predict due to the increasing number of mitigating variables. That said, Virginia Tech, as has been mentioned previously, lost at home to Old Dominion. So you should probably plan on cheering for the Hokies in this one. Thanks to my former classmate and Miami native Mike Levine for reminding me about this game’s significance.

November 23 – Oklahoma at West Virginia: In terms of (at time of this writing) ranked competition ahead of this potentially huge game in Morgantown, the Sooners have a road trip to TCU and a home date with Oklahoma State in addition to the above-mentioned Red River Rivalry. WVU runs a three-week gauntlet of those teams coming in (@ Texas, vs TCU, @ Oklahoma State). It would be super if both stumbled somewhere along the way here. Depending on the circumstances, this could be a playoff elimination game, or it could simply punt that scenario to the following weekend in the conference championship game.

November 24 – Notre Dame at USC: It is very possible that the Irish will enter this game unblemished, with a road win over an athletic, but inconsistent USC the final obstacle between the Domers and their first ever playoff appearance. In this scenario, expect the media and legions of “well, no, I didn’t GO there, but…“ Notre Dame fans to reach weapons-grade levels of insufferable. Help us, JT Daniels. You’re our only hope. I should note, since I already took one flier on Florida State, not to sleep on their 11/10 trip to South Bend. After ND’s history of upsets over FSU, a reversal would be poetic justice. The Seminoles could even complete the mirror universe scenario by losing to Boston College the following week; check the schedule!

Here’s one disclaimer: I looked mostly at teams currently ranked ahead of Penn State. However, the only rankings that matter are the (also totally worthless until the final weekend) rankings of the playoff selection committee, which don’t come out for nearly another month. In comparing the resumes of comparable teams, this shadowy cabal may weigh Penn State’s close loss to the Buckeyes very differently from voters in the coaches and media polls. If the Sparty/Khakis combo from Michigan holds serve against Ohio in the battle of states inferior to Pennsylvania, PSU could once again control its destiny by winning the Big Ten East, but if the Buckeyes lose one, we need to root for a second. Ohio State owns the pesky tie-breaker, and a single, one-point loss to an undefeated conference champ would give Penn State a strong case to join their divisional rival on the playoff bracket.

What are the chances of a Penn State comeback? Comment below!

Chris Buchignani is a co-host of The Obligatory PSU Pregame Show and The Obligatory PSU Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @buchignani

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